WASHINGTON — Faced with the rising prospect of Donald Trump as their party's nominee, Republican governors traded concerns over the weekend about the political fallout facing state GOP candidates who would share the ballot with him.
Several governors gathered here for a national conference said worries surged over the weekend with Trump's consolidation of his front-runner status. Some hinted at a coordinated response to limit collateral damage caused by a Trump candidacy on Republican candidates for governor, Congress, and state legislatures.
Trump's divisive campaign, they fear, will push voters to support Democrats instead, or not vote at all.
Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee said his colleagues had held "a lot of conversations about impact" and the importance of the party finding a presidential nominee who can win in November.
"I think this will be a telling week," Haslam said Sunday. "Obviously, the field narrowed some, and I wouldn't be surprised to see several governors come out this week" to endorse a candidate from the field of Trump's competitors.
Several governors said that if Trump were to secure the nomination, candidates for offices from governor down the slate should focus on local issues rather than try to confront Trump or emulate him.
On Friday, at a downtown hotel, Republican governors heard privately from Karl Rove, formerly the chief political adviser to President George W. Bush and a frequent Trump critic.
Rove painted an unfavorable picture for Republican electoral prospects if Trump sits atop the ticket. Polls have shown him performing poorly among women and minority voters, two groups the party needs to attract in greater numbers than it has in recent elections.
"It was clear he was critical and concerned about the party and the prospects of a Trump candidacy," said one senior party strategist who attended the talk but declined to be named.
The specter of down-ballot repercussions from moderate voters because of Trump's bombast has haunted establishment Republicans for months. But after his landslide victory in South Carolina's primary on Saturday, the concern appeared to ratchet up among leading party figures from outside Washington.
"This divisiveness needs to stop," said Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi, a Republican who has not endorsed a candidate. "And I hope at some point this party and governors around the nation will intervene and let our [candidates] know: This is certainly a contest between them, but it's not a blood sport and it's not something that should hurt the party."
During a closed-door meeting Saturday amid the bipartisan National Governors Conference meeting, Bryant said, Republican governors discussed the potential for partywide damage to their brand and the need to be "supporting civility" during the remainder of what has been a testy campaign.
He cited the electoral aftermath that Republicans felt after President Richard Nixon's resignation as a historical reference.
"We've got to be very careful who our nominee's going to be, and I hope that's somebody that can try to bring people together, not just Republicans but independents, and I think the, as we call them, Reagan Democrats as well," Bryant said.
Governor Charlie Baker, who has occasionally criticized Trump and endorsed Chris Christie days before the New Jersey governor dropped out of the presidential race, acknowledged "a lot of nervousness."
"I would describe the governors on both sides as having a certain fascination with what's going on," Baker said.
Wary of the passionate enthusiasm for Trump among his supporters, some governors in town for the winter conference declined to offer anything beyond bland appraisals of the political climate.
But, privately, several governors and senior aides said that, even more than Trump himself, their failure to anticipate the electorate's hankering for such a candidate has been disquieting for them.
Just seven of the 31 sitting GOP governors have endorsed a presidential candidate this cycle, and four of those nods went to candidates who have since withdrawn.
That leaves, even in a campaign of historic volatility, a great deal of political firepower on the sidelines as the contest moves beyond the earliest-voting states.
Only four states with Republican chief executives have elections for state house control this year, along with eight ruled by Democrats. But, as Bryant noted, Republicans are concerned that the downdraft created by a nominated Trump could linger for years.
Thus far, the GOP establishment has proved relatively hapless at slowing the brash billionaire.
Nowhere has that been more evident than in the failed campaigns of the colleagues and former colleagues of the governors who congregated here over the weekend.
On Saturday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush quit his campaign after finishing a distant fourth in South Carolina.
Bush's exit marked the eighth for a sitting or former governor. Only Governor John Kasich of Ohio remains in the field.
In particular, the departures of Bush and Christie, who as head of the Republican Governors Association helped many of them reach or retain office, are likely to embolden some governors to attempt to consolidate behind an establishment-friendly candidate such as Kasich or Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.
Haslam and others hinted that the thinning field and results in New Hampshire and South Carolina, two states that historically have helped clarify Republican nominating contests, had prompted some of the governors at the conference to consider mobilizing.
"The concern for the party is, we want to make sure we get a candidate that can win, so when we hear about there's a cap on Trump's or anyone else's approval, we have the right to be thinking about the general election," said Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming.
Jim O'Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JOSreports.